Bowen Yang

A triumphant year for Bowen Yang earns an award from Just for Laughs

The Montreal-raised comic spoke with us about living up to expectations on Saturday Night Live, the second Bonjour HI! sketch that almost was and more.

Bowen Yang has had a dramatic couple of years for a breakout comedy star.

Joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2019 after having been a writer (and made a cameo as Kim Jong Un) the previous season, Yang has written and starred in some of the most memorable sketches on the legendary NYC sketch show as it weathered the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election and a quasi-coup d’état. Yang played Elton John, Fran Leibowitz and the bitchy iceberg that sank the Titanic, conceived a sketch that cast Harry Styles as an oversexed gay social media manager at Sara Lee (and himself as the “straight man,” though not really) and of course the temperamental host of the (fictional) Montreal news program Bonjour Hi!, a reflection of the fact that Yang spent his early childhood in this city.

As the first East Asian American cast member on SNL, Yang represented with a moving appeal for human kindness following the disturbing rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. (and around the world) last year. As only the third openly gay male cast member on the show, Yang represents by peeling back layers of self-censorship and sharing jokes that might have once been considered too niche for the relatively mainstream SNL audience — a recent sketch about being worn out and depressed by the pressure of over-partying during Pride, for example, rings more relatable to a wider audience than he would have once thought.

The iceberg that sank the Titanic

Outside of SNL, Yang co-hosts his own podcast Las Culturistas (with Matt Rogers), appears in the Comedy Central/HBO Max TV series Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and appears in the recently launched, Alan Cumming-directed podcast Hot White Heist, which has an all-star, all-LGBTQ2 cast that also features Abbi Jacobson, Jane Lynch, Margaret Cho and Cynthia Nixon, among others.

This summer, Yang will receive the Breakout Star of the Year award at the annual Just for Laughs Awards show, airing online on July 28. I spoke to Yang about this recognition, embracing his role on SNL and the famous sketch that seemed to delight, outrage and confuse Montrealers in equal measure.

Lorraine Carpenter: How did the Bonjour Hi! sketch come about? I know you lived in Brossard for about seven years when you were a kid, and performed at JFL in 2018, but was there a particular exchange you had with Montrealers that inspired that characterization and that concept?

Bowen Yang: It wasn’t a particular exchange, necessarily. One of my best friends who just finished a six-year tenure at SNL as a supervising writer is Sudi Green — I came up with her in New York comedy, and she had been a new face at Just for Laughs in 2015 and she had family in Montreal as well — we were in L.A. during the lockdown last year and we were batting ideas around. She had thought of what was initially going to be a talk show, and the host, played by me, would be someone who kind of embodies the way that French Canadians can pivot so quickly from being so jovial and friendly and welcoming to deep, deep visceral anger at the slightest perturbance. That is so comedically rich to me, and to Sudi.

That was a seed of the idea, which eventually became a news show, but it was obviously informed by growing up there and having teachers in public schools be so kind and nice and nurturing and then if someone spoke out of turn in third grade, you have the teacher immediately (yells in indecipherable angry French). It’s so burned into my memory in such a wonderful way that it’s, like, only in Montreal, only in Brossard, only in Quebec do you get that kind of person.

LC: So many Montrealers were shocked that that sketch existed because it seems so inside-jokey, with the phrase “bonjour-hi” being borderline triggering to some people here. I’m surprised it wasn’t considered too niche.

Bowen Yang: I feel like the title of the sketch sort of clues in a knowing audience that knows what the controversy itself is or who knows what Québécois identity is, who knows that it’s just going to be a completely farcical take on what the culture is in a way that is hopefully not offensive.

One neat thing about SNL is that it’s a very bottom-up approach to writing and to getting things on the show. It’s not a top-down thing where producers are mandating a certain kind of tone. I’ve never been explicitly told, “This is too niche,” or “People won’t understand this.” If anything I need to deprogram myself because I’m the one who self-censors and edits. Sketches like the iceberg on Weekend Update, during the entire creative process around that, I told myself, “People aren’t going to get this! How do I make this understood?” And then by the end I’m surprised that people appreciate it for what it is. You really can’t underestimate your audience.

Bonjour Hi
Bonjour Hi! on Saturday Night Live

LC: When you were growing up and coming up in comedy, did you consciously feel under-represented in terms of LGBT comedy icons and peers, or were there enough comics and actors out there to fill that space that’s so much more rich now?

Bowen Yang: I never considered that there was a dearth of people who didn’t reflect me back to myself. In hindsight, I’m always like, “Oh wow, I appreciate the fact that there was someone like Margaret Cho.” I honestly think I’ve been the beneficiary of timing and cultural changes and circumstances that led me here. I spoke to Lorne (Michaels, SNL producer) after the finale of the season and I forget how we got to talking about this but he said that the worst thing you can do as a performer is to be convinced that we are God’s gift to comedy or film or television or whatever whatever lane we’re in, and that ultimately what we do on the show, how we end up on the show, has to do with luck — the right place at the right time. It’s been a very grounding humbling thing to consider. I always try to get back to that truth about how the industry works, and I don’t think someone like me would have been on the show however many years ago, so it feels fortuitous that I was able to carve out some space for myself. Hopefully now that will start to be more common, where it becomes an inevitability to have a queer Asian person succeed on SNL, or on any television show.

LC: Being the first East Asian American and third gay male cast member on SNL, how do you process the pressure that comes with those roles?

Bowen Yang: I have to triangulate myself in terms of the pressure. I can’t fully deny that it’s there, and I have to honour that pressure and live up to it, but the less I consider the pressure, the more liberty I have to do something that breaks down the notion that there is pressure on me, or that there should be pressure on me to begin with. Letting yourself feel the pressure is going to create a box that people will put you in anyway, so why not try to just dismantle the box and work outside of it and end up doing an Elton John impression on the show? I never imagined that I would, or could play Elton John, and that was so fun. Now that that seal has been broken, hopefully I get to do things that are on the same level of surprise.

LC: To get back to Bonjour Hi! for a minute, do you think there’s a chance we may see a sequel to that sketch?

Bowen Yang: I can tell you that we tried to remount it with Dan Levy. It was like, “Oh, this is perfect!” We had this Canadian comedian coming to the show and he can do a great Québécois accent. It was so fun to write, but on the topic of niche-ness, because we swung big with the first iteration, in the second iteration we talked about my character getting engaged to Bonhomme Carnaval, and we showed pictures of Bonhomme and nobody really got it. This was at the table read on Wednesday — it’s the first testing environment for what sketches will work — and it didn’t quite work. But I am determined to bring it back, because that hybrid of European and American sensibilities that I saw growing up watching Just for Laughs street performances, that is something that doesn’t really live in any other container at SNL but on a show like Bonjour Hi! I hope it doesn’t stir up as much heated, spirited conversation next time, but I want to bring it back — I really do, Lorraine.

bowen yang cult mtl july 2021 cover
Cult MTL July 2021

LC: How do you feel about getting the Breakout Star of the Year award from Just for Laughs?

Bowen Yang: It feels almost undue. It’s like, oh gosh, do I deserve to be in the same league as people who received it before? It’s a huge honour and I feel very favoured and blessed and all those words. To be recognized by this festival, there is an emotion to it for me that’s extremely personal. The beautiful thing about the festival is that it is for everybody. It’s for everyone in the industry, but I always saw it as a festival that was for the people of Montreal. Seeing the Just for Laughs street performers as a child was probably one of those formative things for me growing up, to start to solidify an appreciation for comedy. On a cultural level, to see everyone come together and gather and appreciate comedy in this way, I feel that probably changed the course of my life. Not to be too dramatic, but I do believe that to be true. ■

The Just for Laughs Awards featutring Bowen Yang will stream online on July 28 at 7 p.m. (ET). For the complete schedule, please visit the festival’s website. This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit Comedy section.